This word was printed in a description on the back of a bottle at one of our recent Wines of the World meetups, and most of us didn't know what it meant. My cursory response was “basically, it is grapevine genetics. The study of the vine.” That’s pretty much it, in the abridged version. Before we had genetic sequencing, Ampelography started as the study of different physical characteristics from vine to vine, usually focusing on the shape and texture of the plant’s leaves, berry color, etc. In some cases, the vines really do have very differently shaped leaves (I, a novice, after spending about 20 minutes in WSUs research plots was able to recognize that what was labeled on my map as Chardonnay, was in fact, not. Just based on the shape of the leaves.) However, in other cases, the leaves look pretty darn similar and aren’t useful enough to determine the difference between cultivars (or what we drinkers call “varietals.”)
Today, ampelography encompasses more than just looking at the shape of the vine and its parts and has broadened to include genetic studies as well. Just as with people, genetic sequencing and DNA has solved a lot of grapevine mysteries! (What is known as Primitivo turned out to be what Californians have been calling Zinfandel all along!)
And, now you know! Hopefully this will be on your (or my) next pub trivia questionnaire!